China has vowed that the next 2022 Winter Olympics will be the first Games to run entirely on wind and solar power, and has built dozens of facilities to increase capacity – but campaigners warn ordinary people are exploited by “land grabs” in the process.
In a hamlet near Beijing, the Long family – who say they’ve lost more than half of their farmland to a large solar farm next door – now have so little income that they burn corn husks and plastic bags to keep warm in winter.
“We were only promised 1,000 yuan per mu of land every year when the power company leased the land for 25 years,” said farmer Long from Huangjiao Village, using a unit of Chinese land of about 667 square meters.
“We can earn more than double by growing corn in the same area. Now, without land, I earn my living as a day laborer. “
China is the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, and the Winter Olympics are seen as an opportunity to showcase the country’s green technologies as they seek global markets.
To ensure uninterrupted power for the Games – and eliminate the winter smog that is choking the Chinese capital – neighboring Beijing’s Hebei Province has built a giant power plant that draws its power from renewable projects in the province.
This plant alone produces 14 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity each year, which is equivalent to Slovenia’s annual energy consumption.
But for farmers like Long and his neighbor Pi, the green energy boom has made their lives more dangerous and difficult.
Pi says villagers have been forced to sign contracts – seen by AFP – to lease their land to the solar park built by State Power Investment Group (SPIC), one of the country’s five largest utility companies.
Those who did not agree were beaten by the police, he said, adding that “some were hospitalized, some were detained”.
– “Suppressed and Imprisoned” – Pi was jailed for 40 days, while Long languished in jail for nine months for “illegal assembly and disturbing the peace” after a public demonstration.
“The situation is similar to a mafia,” Pi said. “If you complain, then you will be removed, jailed and sentenced.”
The average annual rural disposable income in Baoding is around 16,800 yuan ($ 2,600), a figure Long and Pi said they could no longer earn.
AFP could not confirm that electricity from the SPIC project near Huangjiao would be used to directly power Olympic venues, as this information is not publicly available.
The company declined to confirm at AFP’s request.
But the government of Zhangjiakou – the city co-hosting the Games – has said that since winning the Olympic bid in 2015, the region has “turned from scratch into the largest energy base. renewable non-hydropower in China “.
Government subsidies for wind and solar farms have also sped up construction of such projects in other parts of Hebei, as China strives to reduce air pollution ahead of the Games.
In a statement, Amnesty International said that “forced evictions, illegal land seizures and loss of livelihoods linked to the loss of land” were among the most frequent human rights concerns associated with sectors of the world. wind and solar energy.
China wants 25% of its electricity to come from non-fossil fuels by 2030.
To achieve this, the country needs to more than double its current wind and solar capacity, but environmentalists warn land grabs will become widespread as energy companies rush to produce renewable energy.
And although Beijing has set itself a series of ambitious goals around the Winter Olympics, environmental activists face heavy pressure in China if they challenge the official line.
Several told AFP they were uncomfortable discussing Beijing’s environmental goals for the Games for fear of retaliation.
– “We have nothing” – In September, China announced strict compensation rules when land is reclaimed for green projects, including green energy development.
“Our land zoning (rules) also clearly regulates agricultural land that cannot be occupied, especially agricultural land,” Li Dan, general secretary of the Renewable Energy Professionals Committee, which promotes green development.
“It’s a red line.”
If farmland is used for renewable energy projects, there should be a benefit-sharing program in place, such as powering greenhouses, she said.
But several farmers interviewed by AFP said companies were labeling farm fields as wasteland to get around the rules.
Xu Wan, a farmer from Zhangjiakou, lost his land to a solar installation built in the run-up to the Games.
“The company told us that this is unusable land, but in reality it is all very good agricultural land used by us farmers,” Xu said.
“They said they would give us 3,000 yuan per mu of land. But in the end, we got nothing.
Zhangjiakou Yiyuan New Energy Development, which installed the solar project in Xu village, did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.
Jiang Yi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told a state-run industry news site that China will need 30,000 to 40,000 square kilometers more in the future. to meet renewable energy needs.
“The origin of the earth has become the biggest problem limiting the development of the industry,” he said.
– “Corruption is intolerable” – Renewable energy investments have also accounted for more than half of new projects under China’s global infrastructure initiative – the Belt and Road Initiative – the last year.
Priyanka Mogul of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, a UK-based nonprofit that has studied the impact of Chinese investments in renewable energy overseas, said some developers have also been accused of the practices. controversial when acquiring land abroad.
“The most prevalent problem was the inadequate disclosure of environmental impact assessment (data)… monitoring issues related to land rights and loss of livelihoods,” she said.
To reduce conflict over taking possession of village land, China has touted most solar farms as poverty alleviation projects, where villagers get free electricity from solar panels installed on their homes. rooftops.
According to 2014 state guidelines, utility companies should then buy back the additional electricity as part of a program to lift two million families out of poverty by 2020.
The National Energy Administration said last year that more than double that number had benefited.
But in Huangjiao with more than 300 households, only two rooftops were fitted with solar panels, and villagers said there had been no program to install solar panels.
“At the central level, the government has good policies for farmers,” said Pi from Huangjiao Village.
“But once you get to the village level, things change. The corruption at the grassroots is intolerable.